Monday, November 10, 2008

Sermon, Nov. 9 - Stewardship Fun

Matthew 22:15-22

Stepping Stone#8 – Bread (Dough)

 Since September's Rally Day, Stepping Stones of Faith has been our theme.  We’ve talked about markers of growing faith – beginning with Baptism, learning the Bible, Being part of Worship, taking Communion, Becoming an active member and Stepping out in Mission.  Today is our last segment of this series, and it falls on Stewardship Sunday, the day in which we dedicate our pledges of support for the coming church year.  So I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that today we’re going to talk about the step we take when we make the commitment to give a portion of our income, our worldly possessions, our earnings, our BREAD, to God through the church. 


Some people are shy about stewardship.  I was at a conference last week, and some of my colleagues were discussing at one of the meals how stewardship season was upon us, and ugh.  We have to do the stewardship sermon, and it’s not my favorite topic, etc.  And one of the non-clergy spoke up and said, “Yeah, we can tell you hate it, too.”   I guess that stewardship Sunday might seem to some people like the pledge week on Public Radio.  It’s annoying.  It takes away from regular programming, but it has to be done in order to pay for the good stuff – the regular programming. 

Well, those of you who know me know that I don’t feel that way about Stewardship at all.  I don’t approach Stewardship thinking, “Oh, it’s painful and embarrassing to have to ask people to give money, but we just HAVE to do it, in order to keep the doors of the church open.”  It seems to me that if we read our Bibles with an ear, especially, for what Jesus has to say to us, his take might be more like this:  “One of the most important things the church can do is to help people get a right relationship with money.   A right relationship with God is impossible if love of money stands in the way.”

·         Jesus talks a lot about money and possessions. 

Jesus talked about money more than He did Heaven and Hell combined.

·         Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.

·         11 of 39 parables talk about money.

·         1 of every 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke talk about money.

This passage from Matthew seems to be one of the less challenging passages about money.  In it, Jesus is confronted by opponents who are trying to trap him into saying something either extremely unpopular on the one hand, or treasonous on the other.  What do you say, Jesus?  Shall we pay taxes to Caesar, or shouldn’t we?  This is the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question.  There’s no good answer.  If Jesus says, “yes” then the crowd will turn against him as a collaborator with Rome. And if he said “no”, then all the opponents would have to do is turn him in to the Roman authorities for making threats against the state. 

But Jesus doesn’t answer immediately.  Instead, he asks for a coin.  Now, do you have a coin with you?  Get it out.  Imagine that, instead of a dead, duly elected President, a representative of the people, the coin had on it the image of George Bush.  And instead of saying, ‘e pluribus unum” and “In God We Trust” it said, “George Walker Bush, divine son of divine father HW, the most powerful man on the planet”. If it helps you to imagine feeling a little queasy about it, imagine that the coin had Bill Clinton’s face on it, and ascribed glory and honor and divinity to him.     

You can imagine that such a coin would be more than a little disturbing to the religiously scrupulous.  They took that no other gods commandment pretty seriously back then. Such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. Lots of religious Jews didn’t even carry these coins.  (And in case you are wondering, Herod the Great and Herod Antipas had special non-offensive, sort of politically correct for their day, coins minted especially to be used in Judea and Galilee and Samaria.)  And they would have been especially careful not to carry them in the Temple. 

So when Jesus asks for a coin and his questioners whip out one of these “Caesar is God” numbers, they immediately show themselves to have “bought in” to the system.  They are exposed. The crowd sees who is “collaborating”.  Jesus then asks, the question about who’s image is on the coin.  It’s Caesar’s.  Then he says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to him.”  It’s a pretty good, smart-alecky answer that fully takes care of what was asked:  Should we pay Caesar these taxes?  Jesus says, “It’s his money.  Give it to him.” 

And that could have been the end of it.  But Jesus adds a little twist that brings his hearers, back then and even today, it brings those listening to Jesus up short:  He says, “Give back to God what is God’s.” 

What bears God’s image?  What belongs to God?  What did God “mint” that bears the likeness of the truly Divine? 

According to the Bible, that would be us:

Genesis 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;  . . God created human kind in the Divine image, in the image of God they were created;  male and female, God created them.”

Genesis 5:1:  “When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness/image of God.”

Genesis 9:6:  “. . . for in the Divine image God created humankind.”

So what are we to give to God?  Ourselves.  Our whole selves.  

What does that mean? 

One stewardship trainer says that it means that whatever we give to the government in taxes, we should make sure to give more to God through the church, to show where our greatest allegiance lies. 

That’s an interesting thought.  Maybe that would work for you.  But let me suggest another –

It means God gets “first dibs” on our time.  Every morning when we wake up, it is because God has given us another day.  Sharing that day with him should be first priority.  That means talking to him.  Prayer.   Maybe a set time of your day, or throughout the day, prayers of thanksgiving, and confession and requests for help for ourselves or others. . . We owe God that.

It means God gets “first dibs” on our talents and abilities.  If we can sing, God deserves the best song.  If we can learn, God deserves some of our focus.  If we can build, what are we building for God? 

And if God has gifted us with the ability to earn a living . . . well, you know where I’m with that.  Returning some of that to God through the church is good and right.

It’s good and right for the church, which has salaries (my salary, as a matter of fact) and utility bills to pay. 

It’s good for the people who benefit from our mission and ministry – our children who get Sunday school instruction, those needy individuals and charities that receive part of what you give through mission. (Wasn’t that mission dinner great a couple of weeks ago?  Anyone who wondered where mission money goes could get a really good answer to that question.) 

But, most of all, it’s good for those of us who give.  To be a good giver is a tremendous blessing.

A pastor whose church ministers to the poor of Haiti tells of visiting a woman there, who had been given a loan to buy some chickens and who now had a thriving egg business.  She’d given hens to her neighbors, and formed a cooperative with some of the women to market the produce.  She hosted Brian in her one room, dirt floor home.  She insisted that he sit in the only chair, and she sat on the floor.  From a box under the bed she produced two cans of pop, which she said she had been saving for a special guest.  She thanked him, over and over, for the help the church had offered her.  He asked her what was the most important thing she’d been able to do with the money.  She said the thing that gave her the most pride was that now she was able to tithe.  She said it was so wonderful to be able to do that.  It blew this minister away.  There she was, in the one room shack, with the one chair, and the little bed and a few chickens, it seems like such a precarious existence.  As he left, he said,  “God bless you.  You’ll be in my prayers.”  And she said, “Pastor, I will be praying for you, too.  I know that it is more dangerous to have a lot than it is to have a little.” 

We have, not a little.  But a lot.  And the danger is that we might, in our wealth and ease, forget that what we have and what we are belongs to God.  Returning a portion to God through the church is one way to remember. 

In a few minutes, we’re going to pass out pledge forms, to record your commitment to financial support of this church.  It’s not intrusion into your personal finances.  It’s an invitation to the joy of giving.  And it is strictly between you and God.  I’m not asking you to turn them in. 

But we are asking that you take a few minutes and pray about what you will give.  Think in terms of a percentage of your income.    And write it down.  That’s because if you write something down you are 5 times more likely to fulfill your intention.  Be specific.  That, too helps us follow through.  God gives us ways to help ourselves be faithful, and we ought to use every help we can.  So write down a specific goal.

And you know, telling someone else what you are committing yourself to do is also helpful.   In past years, we’ve all told the same person, by turning in our pledge cards to the treasurer.  This year, I encourage, invite, URGE you to tell someone that you choose to tell.    If you aren’t comfortable sharing the amount, tell the percentage.  Or, if you don’t feel close enough to share that, then just let a church friend know that you intend to return something to God throughout the upcoming year.  “I filled out a pledge form!”  is really all you have to say.  It’s one small way to be help one another be accountable for what we need to do to take this step in faith.

So – Friends, we have been told by Jesus Christ that we should give back to God what belongs to God.  Shall we take that step together?

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